By Anna Lund
The stories we tell—around a dinner table, in the grocery checkout line, or even what we say to ourselves—shape our lives and the world we live in. Whose stories get told? Who gets to hear those stories? These are some of the questions we asked ourselves as we built the curriculum for a six-week residency with high schoolers at St. Mary's Academy in Inglewood. Each year, the Skirball partners with one class of students at a local school. The program is taught by Skirball educators (in this case, me!) with the goal of exploring history and identity using art as a tool for action! As an actor, writer, and educator, I brought my passion for screenwriting and my interest in stories of the past to the table, and invited students on a journey to share their own stories in a collaborative way.
Time and time again, I was floored by the capacity for truth and depth of understanding that this class brought to their ideas and scripts. We have some serious change-makers in our midst. They were inspired by both the mundane and the dramatic moments that happen to us in conversation every day.
Here's the story of our experience!
ACT I: Visiting the Skirball
Setting: Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, CA, January 2023
The residency kicked off with students visiting the Skirball to explore Visions and Values. All programs at the Skirball start with learning from primary sources, the real objects and artifacts that people carried with them as they immigrated to the United States. One student remarked, “Going through the exhibition made me open my mind more and notice how anything there can be turned into a story. Whether it’s a painting or actual items, there is always a background story that more can be added to.”
This kitchen tableau can be seen in the Skirball’s core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America. It represents an early twentieth-century American Jewish immigrant kitchen. We asked students to think about the conversations that might have taken place around a table like this. They created a series of scenes inspired by this display and other conversations that take place around tables—ranging from a school cafeteria to a completely devised, fantastical world. Over the course of six weeks, the students brainstormed, researched, wrote, and edited their work.
ACT II: Preparing the Scripts
Setting: St. Mary’s Academy in Inglewood, CA, January and February 2023
After the students’ visit to the Skirball, we moved into the classroom. Twice a week, I visited St Mary’s Academy, presented lessons on scriptwriting, and students used independent work time to collaboratively develop their pieces. Students learned how to constructively brainstorm, properly format a script to industry standards, give and implement peer feedback, construct discussion prompts for readers and audience members, and prepare for a final showcase. Their teacher shared, “This was such a valuable experience for my students who have not necessarily been given this platform and ability to share their creative work and have their voices heard on this scale. Collaborating with students to hear what they want to get out of the residency and how their ideas shape the finished product works really well.”
ACT III: Presentation Day
Setting: Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, CA, February 2023
After much rehearsal and collaboration, we arrived at the final presentation day! We welcomed students from local middle and high schools to check out our galleries and make art before the culminating presentation. Young people and their teachers explored Visions and Values with Skirball educators, guided by reflection questions posed in the free, downloadable Visions and Values curriculum.
They also had the opportunity to address challenging questions around family, relationships, and self-expression by making art in a reflective process. Questions written by the residency students—such as, Do you find it difficult to express yourself? And, Is it hard to talk about challenging issues, especially with parents?—were used as prompts for art-making. By posing these questions in the context of art-making, student audience members had a soft landing pad on which to broach difficult topics, leading to inspired works that had layers of tension and vulnerability.
After the audience finished their activities around campus, the showcase began. The audience was engaged, the presenting students excelled, and the event culminated in an eye-opening Q&A. When asked what the most memorable portion of the residency was, one student shared, “Being able to view all of our projects on a stage—it was such an exhilarating experience to sit and watch our work be presented in front of a live audience.”
These celebratory and communal moments can be crucial elements in what makes or breaks our ability to build a better world—and these students recognize that. When we truly listen to one another, we open an opportunity to meet each other in a posture of kindness and welcome.
If you are interested in attending or participating in a future Skirball residency project, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.